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Putin visit seen as boost to Egypt’s economy
February 10, 2015, 3:53 am

Putin, left, and El-Sisi, right, attended a performance celebrating 72 years of Egyptian-Russian ties in the Cairo Opera House on Monday [Xinhua]

Putin, left, and El-Sisi, right, attended a performance celebrating 72 years of Egyptian-Russian ties in the Cairo Opera House on Monday [Xinhua]

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Cairo on Monday in a visit that has been much vaunted by the Egyptian government and media for the past year.

Putin, who is visiting the country for the first time in nearly a decade, was greeted at Cairo International Airport by his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

This is the third time the two leaders meet in a year.

After a short meeting at the airport, the leaders attended a performance at the Cairo Opera House before having dinner at the Cairo Tower.

Relations between Moscow and Cairo have been steadily on the rise after the January 25, 2011 uprising culminating in the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak (and later Mohamed Morsi in the summer of 2013).

The strengthened ties were set against a temperate US backlash often critical of Egypt’s new rulers.

In recent months, Egypt has been providing Moscow with key food exports after the US imposed heavy economic sanctions on Russia due to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

Russia has promised to increase arms sales to Egypt, which also imports up to 40 per cent of its wheat needs from Moscow.

There is also talk of excluding the US dollar in the settlement of accounts of bilateral trade between the two nations.

“This measure will open up new prospects for trade and investment cooperation between our countries, [and] reduce its dependence on the current trends in the world markets,” Putin told Ahram Online.

This will not be the first time Russia uses national currencies for trade – a measure Egypt hopes will give a boost to its pivotal tourism economy, which has suffered from recent instability and insecurity.

“The volume of bilateral trade has increased significantly over the past years: In 2014, it increased by almost half compared to the previous year and amounted to more than $4.5 billion,” Putin added.

Last week, Egyptian officials began finalising a gas deal with Russian energy giant Gazprom.

Historically, ties between Egypt and Russia have been close. The former Soviet Union was one of Egypt’s main allies and arms providers until Egypt’s 1973 war and the ensuing Camp David peace accords with the US and Israel.

With the signing of the 1978/1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Accord and Treaty, the US became the Egyptian government’s greatest Western backer and arms supplier.

But in July 2013 when the military stepped in – following a populist uprising – to remove a democratically elected president, ties with the US were frayed.

In August 2013, the Pentagon canceled military drills with the Egyptian army and two months later, portions of the annual US aid package were suspended.

In February 2014, El-Sisi went to Russia on his first international visit to meet with Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to discuss regional terror threats and possible new arms contracts. He went again in August 2014, shortly after winning the presidential election.

Putin has traditionally been popular in Egypt, but since 2011 and amid the perceived US hostility toward Cairo, his role as a supporter of the country has boosted his status.

“This visit is sure to help back the Egyptian economy, because Putin’s visit will wave in investors which will [in turn] put Egypt on the world map,” says Mohamed El Sayed, a fruit and vegetable vendor in Heliopolis.

Mohamad Khalaf, a supermarket deliveryman, believes that both countries need each other. “Relations between Russia and Egypt are important for economic and military cooperation,” he said.

In 2013 and 2014, both Egyptian and Russian media speculated that the two countries were about to enter a new phase in their cultural, economic and military relationship.

But HA Hellyer, a nonresident fellow at the Centre for Middle East Policy in the Washington-based Brookings Institution, thinks Putin’s visit will probably not mean “a massive difference” in terms of relations between Cairo and Moscow.

“Cairo still pivots to the Western axis – not the Russian one. Nevertheless, it will send an uncomfortable political message to the West – that Cairo is at least showing it has – even if it does not really seriously entertain – options,” says Hellyer.

But there is much common ground to bolster ties between the two countries during Putin’s two-day visit. Russia has long complained of extremist terrorism in its territories and lambasted the West’s support for Islamist militants in Syria.

Egypt, meanwhile, is hunkering down for a long anti-terrorism campaign of its own as its military installations and personnel come under persistent attack in the Sinai.

While both countries see themselves fighting a parallel war, Egypt needs what Russia has – advanced weaponry; Moscow is seeking to relieve some of the stress of sanctions by increasing weapons sales.

By Nadine Awadalla for The BRICS Post in Cairo, Egypt

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